Riding the Rails in Missouri

Photos and text by Hattie Beresford

image001When I told people where we were going for our vacation this year, they raised their eyebrows, shot me a look of absolute incredulity, and exclaimed, “Missouri! Why on earth…?”

On the rush hour Metro in St. Louis, local riders, amused and curious about two tourists on the line, asked, “Where y’all from?” When we said California, they raised their eyebrows, shot us a look of incredulity, and asked, “What on earth are you doin’ here?”

What we were doin’ was getting ready to bicycle the longest Rail Trail in the United States, the 225-mile-long Katy Trail between Clinton and St. Charles, Missouri. Built on the former corridor of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, aka the MKT or Katy, the segments of the trail that border the Missouri River are part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. The Katy is also part of the American Discovery Trail and has been designated a Millennium Legacy Trail.

In the early 1990s, thanks to the National Trails Systems Act and a generous donation by the late Edward D. “Ted” Jones and his wife Pat, owners of Edward Jones Investments, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources was able to acquire the abandoned rail route and construct the trail, which was completed in 1999.

The Katy Trail

image003The trail system that Missouri created is incredible. Over the 225-mile course of compacted decomposed limestone, twenty-six trailheads provide restrooms, water, parking, and roofed “depots” which house benches and information boards. These boards visually display the history of the area or town, examine the flora and fauna, and provide maps and distance charts. They also note the availability of traveler services and provide an excellent brochure and map published by the Missouri Department of Natural Resource offices.

Mile markers line the route and accompany the names of towns so a little math lets one know how far it is to the next water faucet. Along the route, historic markers reveal the travails of the Lewis and Clark Expedition as they pulled, pushed, and sailed their way up this stretch of the Missouri River during May and June of 1804. Riders can also visit monuments devoted to Daniel Boone, who came to Missouri in 1799.

Railroad Towns

image005While some of the towns existed before the railroad, many others were platted about 10 miles apart to re-supply the trains with coal and water. (Today, they re-supply the bicyclist with food and water.) These little hamlets often became agricultural centers complete with stores, schools, and churches. Despite their similarities, each town had, and has, its unique characteristics, and Brett Dufur, author of The Complete Katy Trail Guidebook, has chronicled them all.

We started our six-day adventure in Clinton, Missouri, the western terminus of the current Katy Trail. Like Santa Barbara (my home town), Clinton became famous as a health resort in the 1880s. When the appeal of its sulfur springs faded in the 1920s, Clinton filled the economic void by becoming the “Baby Chick Capital of the World.” Today, it boasts the fourth largest town square in the nation. According to Liz at the Press Room, the local bar and eatery, the national economic crisis has put the town in tailspin. To add insult to injury, relentless rains and flooding have ruined cornfields and hurt tourism. Main Street was quiet and many store fronts empty.

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The next day’s ride took us 39 miles to Sedalia. We passed Calhoun, once known as “Jug Town” for its flourishing pottery business and Windsor, a town that developed from an outpost for French fur trappers.

We entered Sedalia where sirens had blared out tornado warnings the night before. One fellow trail traveler said he had taken shelter in his tent at the fairgrounds when the winds “freshened” and the skies let loose. When the sirens started blaring, he’d abandoned his tent to the elements and spent the night in the bathroom.

image010Luckily, Sedalia was spared any real damage. According to Brett, the town was founded in the 1860s. Devotees of Rawhide might remember Clint Eastwood driving his cattle to Sedalia, the terminus of the Texas longhorn drives. On another note, Scott Joplin published his famous Maple Leaf Rag here, and the town hosts the only Ragtime music festival in the nation.

The following day we entered Boonslick County named for the licks, or salt springs, where Daniel Boones’ sons made salt. An important commodity, salt was used primarily to preserve meat. Three hundred gallons of spring water boiled down to 60 pounds of salt.

image011The heat and humidity kicked up and we limped through the only railroad tunnel on the trail, featured in Stephen King’s movie Sometimes They Come Back, to find the Montecito of the Katy Trail and our riverfront home for the night, Rocheport. The stately, tiny village is comprised of neat brick homes set in pristine gardens that line the streets and intermingle with 9 shops, 2 churches and 4 B&B’s. “Downtown” is one block long and the village boasts a winery on the hill and 6 restaurants.

The next day in Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri, a tour of the new (1913) capitol building featured murals by such luminaries as N.C. Wyeth, Frank Brangwyen, and James Earle Fraser. In the Assembly gathering room, every wall was used to reveal the history of Missouri in bold, and controversial images created by Thomas Hart Benton. As much a social history as a chronology of events, Benton’s scenes reveal the interplay of universal human characteristics within the details of Missouri’s history.

image013Then came Herrmann which was founded in 1836 by the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia, which wanted to preserve German customs and language. Their agent had chosen the site when he saw the wild grapevines growing on the bluffs. By 1900, Hermann had the 3rd largest winery in the world and was winning gold medals. Though Prohibition ruined the wine industry, Herrmann’s vintners have recovered and the town has added a microbrewery to its repertoire. Farther down the road, Augusta has a similar history.

image015Daniel Boone and his wife were buried on a knoll near Marthasville, which started life as La Charette in 1766. It was the most western European settlement when Lewis and Clark sailed by in 1804. Boone’s bones were removed to Frankfort, Kentucky in the 1840s, but locals say the Kentuckians dug up the wrong bones, those of Boone’s black servant and friend who was buried near him. Farther along, the town of Defiance boasts Boone’s home. image017

The trail ends in St. Charles, the first capital of Missouri, and final departure point for the Lewis and Clark expedition. Founded by Louis Blanchette in 1769 as a French fur trading post near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the town was called Les Petites Côtes (Little Hills). In the 1960s, the citizens began restoring their historic district of brick and limestone buildings. Now a vital hub of restaurants, shops and history, the town draws visitors from all over the United States and is the eastern terminus of the Katy Trail.

Between The Towns

image019Between the towns, the Katy Trail crunches softly past cattle grazing among shoulder high grasses, newly planted cornfields and those still lying in stubble. The landscape resembles rural France, but instead of castles dotting the hills, gleaming clusters of grain silos point skyward. The Missouri is running so high that creeks have backed up and forest floors are fetid swamps.

Unintentionally, the railroad corridor has preserved the ancient prairie by having used only 15-20 feet of its allotted 100 feet for the rail bed. Along the verges, the ancient prairie grasses lay dormant, safe from the plow and supplanting by non-native species. Conservation efforts have removed the trees and the old flowers and grasses once again thrive.

An allée of cottonwood and other shade trees, however, makes up the greater portion of the 225 miles and is a welcome mitigation of the stifling heat and humidity. Like the trains before us, we take on water at each depot, often pouring a bottle over our heads.

image021Limestone bluffs screened by trees and draped with vines provide shade early in the morning when sunbeams penetrate the leafy canopy. Cardinals and tiny iridescent blue birds flit across our paths. Near the river, alligator snapping turtles plod, frogs leap, 5-lined skinks scramble, and cottonmouths slither across the trail. We give the latter a wide berth.

There’s serenity in the repetitive motion of cycling as we rush ever eastward, attempting to match the pace of the muddy river. The Katy Trail has allowed us to be one with this force, one with a powerful landscape tempered by human hands yet not quite conquered, and one with the many layers of human history.

(Previously published in the Montecito Journal, June 2010)

(If you go: Many cyclists put their own trip together using the excellent website www.biketrailkaty.com for information about shuttles, accommodations, and bicycle rental. Short on planning time and not knowing the quality of the accommodations listed, we chose to use Independent Tourist, which offers three to seven day self-guided tours (www.www.independenttourist.com). They booked us into the best possible hotels and B&B’s and arranged for shuttle and courier service. Other organizations that organize rides are Touring Cyclist, the Sierra Club, and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.)